October 23, 2006

Grading the Tide: Vols 16, Bama 13

BOL provides a weekly report card for the Alabama football team during the 2006 season. Here's a look at how we graded the Crimson Tide in it's 16-13 loss to Tennessee on Saturday afternoon.

Quarterback

With the running game unable to produce much on first down, Alabama's offense found itself in long yardage situations for much of the game. And John Parker Wilson and the rest of the passing game paid for it. On second- and third-and-long plays (seven yards or more), Wilson connected on 5-of-20 passes for 47 yards. Certainly not impressive numbers, but about what one would expect from an offense that 1.) could not run the football effectively on first down and 2.) was without one of the SEC's top receivers. As for Wilson's production on first down plays, he completed 6-of-7 passes for 97 yards. For the first time in seven starts, Wilson came up short of the 200-yard passing mark. And while he didn't appear to be as decisive as he had been in previous games, you can't question his toughness.

Position Grade: C

Running backs

Forget about what we you saw in Duke and Ole Miss game. Tennessee represented a true test for a ground game that UA fans wanted to believe was on the rise. And Saturday's struggles only reaffirmed what most already knew: Alabama can't run the ball effectively without throwing it effectively first. Kenneth Darby's nine first-down carries netted five yards. His longest first-down run covered two yards. Three times on first down, Darby was dropped for a loss. Even the outside counter, which a year ago was Darby's bread and butter play, isn't producing like it once had. The jumbo package couldn't convert a third-and-short earlier in the game, but it did get into the end zone on Tim Castille's two-yard scoring run in the third quarter. Like Darby, Jimmy Johns isn't going to win a 40-yard dash against most defensive backs, but he once again displayed decisiveness and power in rushing for 37 yards on just three carries. He also produced the Alabama football version of a spotted owl sighting in picking up 16 yards on a third-quarter screen pass.

Position Grade: C

Offensive line

Despite going against a Tennessee defense that didn't commit extra defenders to the run, Alabama's front five wasn't able to produce much of a push in Knoxville. It's best performance came on Castille's short touchdown run in the third quarter. On the play, left tackle Andre Smith and Justin Britt created running room with strong down blocks, making the jobs of tight end Nick Walker and fullback Le'Ron McClain much easier. Outside of B.J. Stabler's takedown of Tennessee defensive tackle Turk McBride, penalties were not a big issue for this group. Right tackle Chris Capps surrendered a pair of sacks and Smith gave up another on the game's final play.

Position Grade: C-

Receivers

With Brown out, everybody in Neyland Stadium knew DJ Hall was the go-to guy. But even Hall's growing popularity couldn't keep him from racking up seven receptions for 102 yards. One week after going over two defenders to pull in a 36-yard pass against Ole Miss, Hall did one better in posting the catch of the year in the SEC. It took a couple of series, but UA got Will Oakley involved in the passing game. Over the span of two first-half series, the sophomore caught three passes for 27 yards. In setting the Tide up with a first-and-goal in the first quarter, Nikita Stover made a leaping grab of a slant that was thrown slightly behind him. Alabama continues to see a good bit of two-deep safeties from opposing defenses, but it still hasn't been able to attack the seams with its tight ends.

Position Grade: B

Defensive line

Getting pressure against Tennessee's quick passing game is difficult, so Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines made good use of his ends in coverage instead. Keith Saunders had a slant pass go off his hands and Chris Harris made a stop of UT tight end Brad Cottam while in coverage. Wallace Gilberry finished with three solo tackles, including one for a loss. Play of the day: tackles Jeremy Clark and Dominic Lee getting underneath Tennessee's interior offensive linemen to pave the way for the stop of Ainge on his fourth-and-a foot sneak in the third quarter.

Position Grade: B-

Linebackers

All three starters played well. Saturday marked consecutive strong showings by middle linebacker Prince Hall, who recorded six solo tackles and two TFLs. More proof that Hall's confidence is on the rise was provided late in the third quarter, when he beat UT center Josh McNeil on a toss sweep to take down Arian Foster for a 3-yard loss. A month ago, Hall wouldn't have read the play or closed as quickly as he did on Foster. In leading the Tide in tackles with 11, Juwan Simpson had one his better games of the season and the same was true of Terrence Jones, who finished with five stops.

Position Grade: B

Secondary

Seldom do you see the word good associated with the play of a secondary that gives up 302 passing yards, but considering that it took 46 attempts for Ainge to reach his total, Alabama's defensive backs were more than up to the task. And it's not like they benefited from a strong pass rush. This was the equivalent of a summer pass skel workout. In a break from what most teams have done against Tennessee's receivers this season, Alabama's corners and safeties manned up Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith for much of the day. And with the exception of a few missed tackles (Simeon Castille on Smith), Vol receivers didn't put up big YAC numbers. Though they came in a losing effort, Castille's two interceptions and 10 tackles are certainly worthy of SEC defensive player of the week mention.

Position Grade: B

Special Teams

Combine a couple of altitude-challenged punts and a late arriving coverage unit and you get returns of 33 and 40 yards by Tennessee's Jonathan Hefney -- who was actually filling in as the Vols' return man. To his credit, punter P.J. Fitzgerald made touchdown-saving tackles on both plays. When the defense needed him most, though, Fitzgerald, whose final two punts of the game traveled 29 and 31 yards, wasn't at his best. Marcel Stamps' partial deflection of a UT punt could have been so much more. As it turned out, Britton Colquitt's tipped punt traveled 36 yards, which was nearly seven yards better than the Tide's net punting average for the day. Prince Hall was able to penetrate the Tennessee front on James Wilhoit's 47-yard field goal in the second quarter, but he just missed out on blocking the kick. Hard to fault the effort of a true freshman in a critical situation, but Marquis Johnson's fourth-quarter kill shot on Hefney set the Vols up at the Alabama 43. The Tide's kickoff coverage and Jamie Christensen's perfect day were among the highlights.

Position Grade: D

The Plan

Apparently, the combination of an average Tennessee defensive front seven and the absence of Keith Brown convinced Mike Shula[db] to play things close to the vest on the Tide's first few offensive series of the game. The three-wide receiver set that got plenty of work on first down against Ole Miss was replaced by the standard two-back, one-tight end, two-wide receiver formation. Alabama tried to run the ball on its first three first down plays Saturday. Those three plays went for minus-four yards.

I didn't have as much of a problem with the offensive plan or fourth-down decision making as I did with some of the personnel choices. If the plan is to pound the ball, then it needs to heavily involve the one back who has been productive (albeit on limited carries) between the tackles this season. This also includes the red zone. As for the offensive line, I thought the move of [db]Antoine Caldwell from guard to center would lead to more creativity in the running game, but we've yet to see the offense take advantage of Caldwell's pulling ability. It was talked about in the practices leading up to the Cotton Bowl and we saw some of it in the spring, but it hasn't carried over into the fall.

If Brown's injury exposed anything it was the two misses the Tide had at wide receiver in its 2005 recruiting class. In taking a pair of players who would ultimately fall short of qualifying standards, Alabama passed over a guy like Earl Bennett. And if you're wondering how seriously UA takes NCAA compliance these days, Mike McCoy's one-play appearance against the Vols spoke volumes. Call me crazy, but there isn't another Division I-A program in the country that wouldn't have created a "season-ending" high ankle sprain for McCoy and applied for (and received) a medical hardship on his behalf. Now that we know redshirting is out of the question for McCoy, it's time to get both he and Stover more involved in the the rotation.

Kines' approach is the antithesis of what you see from the offensive side of the ball. Tennessee's offense expected to see plenty of the Tide's 3-3-5 package. So what did Kines do? He came out in a 4-3 and asked his corners and safeties to play a good bit of man coverage. The Tide also mixed up its presnap looks; a cat-and-mouse game that rattled Ainge in the first half more than blitzing ever could have.

While the schedule doesn't include an open week, it has been fairly good to the Tide. If Florida International had a junior varsity team it would probably look a lot like the squad Don Strock will bring to Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

Plan grade: C


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